Sylvain Wiltord: He Wasn’t Very Good

My appraisal of Sylvain Wiltord, from The Gooner issue 122. I still can’t believe he was Arsenal’s most expensive ever signing for a while. This was written in Spring 2002, and a couple of months later he sealed the title win at Old Trafford. That wasn’t enough to change my opinion of him, though.

There was an article in the Evening Standard recently in which Arsène Wenger, Thierry Henry and France’s coach Roger Lemerre all praised Sylvain Wiltord to the skies. “Wiltord is the perfect player to have in my squad,” said Lemerre, before going on to say how great it is that he “always has the team in mind” and “never complains”. Arsene also praised the “fantastic player” who “works for the team” and “deserves a lot of credit for what he has done for us.” Henry was slightly less effusive, but once again praised his colleague’s teamwork and selflessness.

Now maybe I’m missing something here, but am I alone in thinking that Wiltord is not exactly among the best or most skilled players on our books at the moment? Sure there are many things he does well, but I think ‘fantastic player’ is a bit over the top. When he cost 11 million quid and is Arsenal’s most expensive player he probably should be fantastic, and the perfect player to have in the squad, but I’m not convinced. Even the goals he scores are generally either against lower class opposition (eg. most cup goals) or are outrageously fortunate (eg. against Everton recently). How often does he hit a clean well-placed shot rather than a mis-hit which bobbles into the corner after bouncing off a defender?

Now don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Sylvain, and frankly if he scores enough lucky goals to win us a trophy or two then I’ll cheer him as loudly as anyone. I just have a nagging doubt that he’s going to get found out sooner or later. In some ways he reminds me of the one and only Gus Caesar. It’s a while since I read Fever Pitch, but I recall Hornby’s description of how Gus must have come through various schoolboy and youth sides with honour until suddenly, by a mixture of good fortune, hard work and injuries to those above him in the pecking order, he found himself as part of the defensive line of one of England’s top clubs. His luck could only hold so long, and against top class opposition he began to be found out more and more. It was only a matter of time before he began to doubt his own ability. The ’88 Littlewoods Cup Final was when it became apparent to all that the game was up. Until his elevation to the Arsenal first team he’d always been as good as or much better than those around him. Suddenly he was out of his depth.

Of course no one has ever claimed you need to be as skillful as Bergkamp or Pires to make a successful football career. Commitment and belief in yourself are just as important. Niall Quinn is a case in point. When he was at Arsenal I once attended a training session (accompanying my prize-winning little Junior Gunner brother), and the thing I remember most (other than having my picture taken with Charlie Nicholas) was when a group of the players were playing keepy-uppy in a little circle and Quinn kept fluffing it completely. He was useless.

Around the same time the number of substitutes allowed in a match was increased from one to two. Quinn came on as a sub and played so badly that he was then substituted himself. Possibly he was the first professional footballer in the world to achieve this dubious honour. However, he never seems to have let this kind of setback get him down, and has managed to maintain a long top level career. Recently he decided to donate the complete proceeds of his testimonial to charity. This might be because he is a genuinely nice guy who realises that footballers have enough money anyway. However, I can’t help thinking it’s at least partly because he looks back on his career and realises that only a naïve belief in his own ability has carried him through. He probably can’t believe he’s never been found out. Expect him to lose confidence and disappear off the scene pretty quickly now that a new reality has dawned.

Which brings me back to Wiltord. His confidence must be sky high at the moment because every influential figure around him is telling him how great he is. And telling the world as well. And he clearly believes it. He’s playing in the most talented squad ever assembled at Arsenal, and is convinced that he belongs there. Indeed, once it became clear that Arsène wanted to sign him, he virtually went on strike at Bordeaux to persuade them to sell him. (So much for Lemerre saying he never complains.) I just don’t think his confidence is fully justified. Play the ball to him on the run and more often than not his first touch will let him down. The only thing he’s likely to control with the mastery of Dennis or Thierry is the proverbial bag of cement rather than a bouncy bit of inflated plastic.

It’s this lack of a good first touch that worries me most. This seems an obvious sign that Wiltord is playing above his natural level. This is why I find it surprising that Roger Lemerre is so keen to move him up even further. There’s a long list of players who have been successful for their clubs but failed to cut it for their national teams. Given Lemerre’s comments Wiltord seems a certainty for the World Cup squad, but from an Arsenal point of view I hope he doesn’t get a game. Playing and failing could shatter his confidence, whereas travelling and not playing would probably improve it.

So what are Wiltord’s talents? Speed, certainly – Henry might be faster but not much. Workrate and teamwork he’s definitely got. Adaptability? Yes – when he’s on form he’s equally effective playing wide or centrally. Finishing? Sometimes, though he does tend to miss a few sitters. Control? Hmm. Not really. Luck? Well there I think we hit the nail on the head. He’s lucky Arsène wanted him. He’s lucky there’s a squad rotation system. He’s lucky his teammates create so many chances. He even keeps scoring lucky goals. Luck was a quality Napoleon demanded in his generals and if M. Wenger has the same outlook then Sylvain must be assured of his place.

I hope all this doesn’t sound too much as though I have something against our record signing. Certainly not – I’ll support anyone and everyone in the red and white. And maybe a good run in the team will give Wiltord the chance to prove me wrong and show just how good he is. But in case my fears are justified I hope he doesn’t read this because it could just be that the only thing keeping his career on the straight and narrow is blind optimism. And I really want to see some silverware, so if he does read this all I can say is “Go, Sylvain, go!”

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